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Seahawks and Broncos reach Super Bowl

ESPN staff
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Richard Sherman tipped the ball into Malcolm Smith's hands for a victory-clinching interception © Getty Images
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The Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos are heading to the Big Apple for the Super Bowl.

The Seahawks held off a late charge from the San Francisco 49ers for a 23-17 win on Sunday, after Peyton Manning led the Broncos past the New England Patriots 26-16. Malcolm Smith clinched victory in a pulsating encounter for the Seahawks with an end zone interception with 22 seconds left on the clock.

"To see all our work that we put in - the mornings, the nights, the weights, all your life, as a young player and in the NFL," Smith said. "It's amazing."

Seattle's top-ranked defence forced three fourth-quarter turnovers, and Russell Wilson threw a 35-yard touchdown pass on fourth down for the winning points. Seattle will meet Denver (15-3) for the NFL title in two weeks in the New Jersey Meadowlands. It's the first trip to the big game for the Seahawks (15-3) since they lost to Pittsburgh after the 2005 season.

The conference champions had the best records in the league this year, the second time the top seeds have gotten to the Super Bowl in 20 seasons. It also is a classic confrontation of Denver's record-setting offence led by Manning against the NFL's stingiest defence.

"It will be a great matchup," coach Pete Carroll said. "I think it's an extraordinary opportunity to go against a guy that set all the records in the history of the game."

A nearby building urges the home fans to crank up their support © Getty Images
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Moments after Richard Sherman tipped Colin Kaepernick's pass to Smith for the interception, he jumped into the stands behind the end zone, saluting the Seahawks' raucous fans. With 12th Man flags waving everywhere, and 'New York, New York' blaring over the loudspeakers, CenturyLink Field rocked like never before.

"That's as sweet as it gets," said Sherman, who also went into several rants about 49ers wideout Michael Crabtree, whom he called a "sorry receiver."

"This is really special," added Carroll, who has turned around the Seahawks in four seasons in charge. "It would really be a mistake to not remember the connection and the relationship between this football team and the 12th Man and these fans. It's unbelievable."

San Francisco (14-5) led 17-13 when Russell Wilson, given a free play as Aldon Smith jumped offside, hurled the ball to Jermaine Kearse, who made a leaping catch in the end zone.

Steven Hauschka then kicked his third field goal following Kam Chancellor's pick, and Smith intercepted in the end zone on the 49ers' final possession.

"We knew it would come down to us in the back end to win this thing," Sherman said.

The final play was similar to last year's Super Bowl ending, when Kaepernick missed Crabtree in the end zone from the five and Baltimore survived.

Tom Brady congratulated Peyton Manning after the game © Getty Images
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Earlier on, Broncos quarterback Manning had an answer for everyone in the AFC Championship Game - from Tom Brady to the New England defence to anyone who thought he couldn't win the big one.

"Being in my 16th season, going to my third Super Bowl, I know how hard it is to get there," Manning said.

Especially this time. Only three years ago, he could barely grip a football as he started the long comeback from surgeries that ravaged his neck and nerve endings. And only 53 weeks ago, he suffered a devastating loss to Baltimore in the divisional play-offs that derailed what looked like a Super Bowl trip in his comeback season.

But Manning will get his chance for a second Super Bowl ring, after all. He'll try to become the first starting quarterback to win one with two different teams.

"He's been remarkable," said Broncos coach John Fox, off to his second Super Bowl as a head coach. "It's unprecedented what he did."

Manning improved to 5-10 lifetime against Brady, but is now 2-1 in AFC title games. "I have a lot of respect for him," Brady said. "Certainly, he's a great player and he played great today."

Though Manning threw for 400 yards, it was more dink-and-dunk than a fireworks show in this, the 15th instalment between the NFL's two best quarterbacks of a generation. Manning set up four field goals by Matt Prater and put his stamp on this one with a pair of long, meticulous and mistake-free touchdown drives in which nothing came cheap.

He geared down the no-huddle, hurry-up offence that helped him set records for touchdown passes and yardage this season and made the Broncos the highest-scoring team in history. The result: 93- and 80-yard touchdown drives that each lasted more than seven minutes; they were the two longest, time-wise, of the season for the Broncos (15-3).

The Broncos held the ball for 35:44. They were 7 for 13 on third-down conversions. "To keep Tom Brady on the sideline is a good thing," Manning said. "That's something you try to do when you're playing the Patriots."

Manning capped the second long drive with a three-yard pass to Demaryius Thomas, who got inside the overmatched Alfonzo Dennard and left his feet to make the catch. It gave Denver a 20-3 lead midway through the third quarter.

From there, it was catch-up time for Brady and the Pats (13-5), and they are not built for that - at least not this year. "We got in a hole there," Brady said. "It was just too much to dig our way out."

A team that averaged more than 200 yards on the ground the last three games didn't have much quick-strike capability. Brady, who threw for most of his 277 yards in comeback mode, actually led the Patriots to a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns. But they were a pair of time-consuming, 80-yard drives.

The second cut the deficit to 26-16 with 3:07 left, but the Broncos stopped Shane Vereen on the two-point conversion and the celebration was on in Denver.

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